Rohan Silva is perhaps the consummate insider. As a special advisor to the UK Prime Minister his office in 10 Downing Street was the ultimate insider’s address. When he left he was snapped up by Index Ventures, arguably Europe’s leading VC firm, as Entrepreneur-In-Residence, and is now one of two co-founders of Second Home, one of London’s most talked-about shared workplaces, breathlessly described by one blog as “The Coolest Start-up Office In London.” And to cap it all he is a Fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of the Arts.
Silva, a scheduled speaker at DLD 2016, is credited with driving some of the UK government’s most digital-friendly policies, including tax breaks for investors, the Tech City initiative and the world-leading Government Digital Service, now being copied by the Obama administration. GDS’s aim is the digital transformation of government; it has been successful in digitizing, at low cost, numerous bureaucratic processes, as well as opening up the bidding for IT contracts. According to a 2015 government report, GDS directly accounted for £599 million of savings.
Silva: I Feel Like An Outsider
It comes, therefore, as a surprise to hear the tousle-haired 31-year-old ex-civil servant, now seldom seen not in the T-shirt and jeans uniform of the entrepreneur, describe himself as an “outsider.”
“I will feel like an outsider wherever I am,” he says. He attributes his sense of otherness to being a first-generation Briton, of being the displaced northerner living in a southern city and of being, in his words, “non-tribal” in his political affiliations.
Born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the son of a Sri Lankan couple who moved to England for work in the 1960s.
Graduates from University of Manchester with a law degree.
Leaves London School of Economics after studying political philosophy under John Gray.
Joins UK Civil Service, HM Treasury as a fast-track entrant, covering tax and strategy.
Headhunted by George Osborne, then the Conservative Party’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, to become a special advisor.
After the forming of the coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, becomes Senior Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister.
Helps co-ordinate and steer the launch of Tech City, the UK’s flagship tech policy.
Quits Downing Street. Takes up a post as Entrepreneur in Residence at Index Ventures.
Co-founds Second Home, a 25,000 sq ft shared working space in London, with Sam Aldenton. Attracts £4 million investment from leading London figures including Sir Peter Bazalgette.
Second Home announces its expansion into more cities and starts up a bookshop and publishing venture.
Yet despite that, Second Home, a 25,000 sq ft former carpet factory, which declares itself to be “the world’s most iconic space for entrepreneurs and creative businesses,” was funded by a stream of insiders, including the chair of the Arts Council England, three founders of advertising giant M&C Saatchi and a former chief economist of Goldman Sachs. Sir Richard Branson has run events there.
It is just one of many paradoxes of the digital evangelist whose first start-up on leaving Downing Street, short of running a printing press, could not be more analog — he runs a building. Oh, scratch that, he is also planning to print books.
Silva, the son of Sri Lankan immigrants, was brought up in the northern city of Wakefield, a former mining town that has never recovered from the pit closures of the 1980s. He says he spent his university life in Manchester listening to bands or, in his final year, student theater. Foreshadowing his future, he was never on stage, but operated from the wings.
His political awakening came during a year spent at the London School of Economics. “I was a leftist utopian. I really felt it was possible for everything to be fixed. If you believe that then you end up thinking that if government isn’t fixing everything that they are not trying hard enough, not spending enough, they are not aggressive enough,” he says.
“Reading people like Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin — you realize that we are inherently flawed creatures and societies and economies are beautifully unpredictable.
The Unhappy Civil Servant
“My problem was that having had that Damascene conversion, before I got to the LSE I had won a place in the Civil Service.”
As he told an audience not long after quitting No. 10 in June 2013: “By the end of my first day I realized I ******* hated it. Who knew that going to work for a massive bureaucracy would be massively bureaucratic?”
His escape came after he caught the eye of some of the leading figures of the Conservative party; he was headhunted by the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne as an advisor.
“I joined what was effectively a start-up. It was about leaving a very structured, safe, corporate environment — to join an organization that I don’t think I even signed a contract with. There were even a couple of charismatic founders in George and David [Cameron — now the UK Prime Minister]. I loved it.”
“One of the things we did when we were in opposition was to make sure that we didn’t spend too much time talking just to large corporate enterprises. We get into government and suddenly it is just businesses like Microsoft and Tesco that talk to the government. That was terrible. The voice of entrepreneurs was much smaller than it should be.”
Tech City: Flywheel For Change
Following the 2010 election Silva was at the very heart of government, working directly for Prime Minister David Cameron, devising a plan to unleash the potential of small businesses to drive the flagging UK economy. The creation of Tech City was a key part of that. “When we launched the initiative [in 2010] there were 200 or so digital tech companies in East London. Today there are over 5,000.”
Critics of Tech City say the government simply usurped the existing fast-growing tech scene. “In truth there was a pre-existing cluster that had great strengths,” Silva concedes, but Tech City removed barriers that were holding it back.
It was also a driver for change. “When ministers went to Tech City, they would also want policy announcements. It became a great flywheel to push policy through on innovation.”
Even though Silva had a ringside seat, he was not his own man. “I consider myself entrepreneurial but I was conscious that until you are daring enough to start your own business you’re not an entrepreneur.”
In June 2013 Silva handed in his No 10 security pass. He had no plan but it was another insider, Index Ventures, that offered him a billet while he pondered his next move.
He didn’t wait long. After less than a year Silva, along with co-founder Sam Aldenton, founded Second Home — a shared workspace in an archly edgy part of London’s East End.
“I’m Not A Landlord”
The only time Silva’s controlled charm slips is when he is asked why he became a landlord. “I’m not a landlord,” he snaps. “The mission of Second Home is to support creativity and innovation. The way we do that is by bringing together different industries, different types of people and companies of different scales.” It does have an eclectic mix. Those that made the cut include VC firm White Star, TaskRabbit, SurveyMonkey, Artsy, General Assembly and Unlimited Productions, a film production company.
Second Home is expanding — Silva promises an announcement at DLD. The company has more locations earmarked in London and one in Europe. It is also about to open the most un-digital service you can imagine — a bookshop and printing press.
“Bookshops that offer something different are thriving,” he told The Bookseller: “[It] will have an in-house printing press in the basement of the bookshop… We are thinking about the bookshop as an experience where you can see physical books being printed and bound.”
But however Silva dresses Second Home up as some kind of hi-tech digital fusion arena, when the builder’s dust settles and the architects have done their work, this digital champion is building a very analog company. And once again Silva is where he seems most comfortable, operating behind the scenes, in the wings, the rainmaker, the éminence grise, a man who considers himself an outsider but excels at operating inside the circle.